Athletics NZ's high performance Para-Athlete manager Raylene Bates was appointed into the new position at the beginning of the year. Steve Landells chats to the Dunedin-based coach/manager about how the role is progressing and her ambitions for the future.
Why did the Para-Athletics programme decide to embed itself within Athletics NZ?
RB: Firstly it was an opportunity to share resources. It was initiated at an international level by the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) and IPC (International Paralympic Committee) who signed a MoU which meant as a sport able-bodied and para-athletes would work closer together. The IPC and IAAF are aligning their World Championships for the first time in London in 2017 - when the IPC World Championships follows the IAAF World Championships. The Olympics and Paralympics are already aligned. From this it allows the sport to share resources – whether that be competition venues, officials etc. On a national level it was done for the same reason.
Can you give examples of where resources have been shared so far this year?
: We have had integrated meets at National Championships in the past, but not like the number of para-athletes we had competing at Wellington in March. For the first time para competition was not just seen as an add-on, but a full part of the event. The ambulant 100m and 200m attracted seven men and one woman. Every athlete got a PB. It was a real spectacle and crowd pleaser.
Another example would be seven of our para-athletes were invited to a Pathway to Podium camp up at the Millennium Institute last weekend (May 24). For the first time, both able-bodied and para-athletes were at the same camp - which focused on the same theme of athlete performance. We also took this opportunity to include our carded athletes and other athletes tracking towards qualifying for the 2015 Doha World Champs and 2016 Rio Paralympics to do some para-athlete specific sessions, focusing on explaining the process for qualification for these Championships as it is quite different to able bodied athletes. By including these athletes into this camp resulted in a huge financial saving – we now did not have to pay for two separate camps.
What does your role entail?
: As high performance para-athlete manager my role is to develop a programme which results in more NZ athletes competing on the world stage. To compete as a para-athlete is a complicated process, because you need to be both classified and licensed to have your results count on the IPC rankings. So we are developing programmes and pathways, to ensure people have been classified and licensed. More athletes involved in the sport mean we can build the programme from the bottom up. It starts at a secondary school level. All para-athletes who compete at New Zealand Secondary Schools' Championships have to be provisionally classified. This not only enables us to know that they are eligible for competition but because they are on our database and we can track them and invite them to the likes of development camps. We can put a support structure and pathways around athletes who are committed to the sport. Instead of working as splinter groups we are now all pulling in the same direction.
Are there any early signs that the programme is having a major impact?
: Yes, at the end of 2013 New Zealand had five athletes ranked on the IPC World rankings. At the end of April 2014, we had 11 athletes. By April 2015 I would hope that number will increase to 18 to 20.
You have a lot of experience coaching para-athletes, right?
: I coached my first athlete with a disability 25 years ago and I treated the challenge the same as I would with an able-bodied athlete. I also had the pleasure of coaching shot putter Jess Hamill, a silver medallist at the IPC World Championships and Commonwealth Games. Jess had cerebral palsy and that challenged me as a coach. It taught me a lot. I feel extremely privileged to be around para-athletes - to have an impact on their life and watch them grow as a person.
Why have you got such a passion for para-athletics?
: I do have a passion because I find it challenges me as a coach and I've found that quite refreshing. My whole coaching philosophy is that I want to impart my coaching expertise to athletes – both para and able-bodied to not only help them achieve their goals but also help them grow as people. My squad includes both able-bodied and para-athletes. They share a respect and friendship for each other both inside and outside the training environment.
What are the main challenges you face in the future?
: It is to grow the base. In New Zealand we only have a limited number of people and of them only a small percentage are eligible for para sport. We are not like the US or the UK or even Australia who have a significant number of people engaged in active war. In New Zealand we don’t have a high number of para-athletes coming from the military. The US in particular use sport to rehabilitate their injured soldiers and re-establish them in. The fact that those soldiers are so strong and athletic as a result of their military training puts them a step ahead of us. Therefore they have an advantage. We can only work with the numbers we have from our small population.
What are your long-term goals and ambitions?
: By the time of the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo I would like to think that the programme we've put in place has allowed us to grow the sport and that it is sustainable. I would hope we have a clear pathway for para-athletes in a fully integrated programme.
Which athletes represent the future of para athletics in New Zealand?
: The javelin throwers Holly Robinson (F46), who won a world silver medal last year, and Rory McSweeney (F44), who was sixth at the 2013 IPC World Championships, both have a huge amount of talent. Anna Grimaldi a 17-year-old long jumper/sprinter (F47) also has top six potential for Rio. Anna is a real success story. She had never even done athletics up until last year, but she's just a natural and is currently ranked second in the world. Her athletics development has really allowed her to grow as a person.